tv Overheard With Evan Smith PBS January 30, 2016 4:30pm-5:01pm PST
funding for "overhead" with evan smith is provided in part by m.f.i. foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. and from the texas board of legal specialization, board certified attorneys in your community. experienced, respected, and tested. also by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy. and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation. and viewers like you. thank you. >> i'm evan smith. he's an acclaimed documentary filmmaker whose credits include "enron: the smartest guys in the room." "we steal secrets: the story of wikileaks." "the armstrong lie." "client 9: the rise and fall of eliot spitzer," and "taxi to the dark side," which won the academy award in 2007. his latest film is "going clear: scientology and the prison of belief." he's alex gibney. this is "overheard."
[applause]. >> actually, there are not two sides to every issue. >> so i guess we can't fire him now. >> i guess we can't fire him now. the night that i win the emmy. >> being on the supreme court was an improbable dream. >> it's hard work and it's controversial. >> without information, there is no freedom. and it's journalists who provide that information. >> window rolls down and this guy says, hey, he goes to 11:00. [laughter]. >> alex gibney, welcome. >> glad to be here, evan. >> nice to see you and congratulations. >> thank you so much. >> this film, this film is so great. do you feel as good about it? i mean, you have seen it a thousand times. >> i feel great about it. and it's been very moving to me because i have been going around this week around the country having screenings in various places. we were in missouri, l.a., here in austin. and a lot of people come up to me afterwards and are very moved. >> right. >> either ex-scientologists, sometimes people who have been involved in belief systems feel
very -- it's meaningful to them. >> but, in fact, i think even if you're not in scientology or haven't been or have not been involved in a belief system, as you say, to watch this, you just sort of sit back, can't believe it. it really just washes over you, the experience that you've depicted. you worked with larry wright previously. >> i did. you know, larry and i met because i saw his one man play, "my trip to al-qaeda." >> right. >> which was --. >> based on "the looming tower." >> based on his writing -- you know, his experience writing "the looming tower" which he won the pulitzer prize for. and i did a film about that, which was also on hbo. >> right. >> and we got along very well. and we traveled, you know, into the middle east for that. and we were always looking for something else to do together. >> right. >> and i knew about, you know, his scientology thing. he was actually talking to paul haggis just as we were doing, "my trip to al-qaeda." he did "the new yorker" piece and then he sent me the galleys for "going clear" and i was hooked. >> so, in fact, he thought and you thought let's do something again together. >> oh, yeah, absolutely. >> and so would the book have spoken to you as a documentary filmmaker? would you have come to this, you think, naturally, had larry not been in the mix?
>> i think so, but i think larry's urging helped me get there. >> right. >> and also it was good timing because i had just done a film called "mea maxima culpa." >> right. >> about the catholic church. >> catholic church, right. >> and, you know, the cover-up of pedophilia. >> speaking of belief systems. >> yeah, exactly. >> right. >> and a lot of the issues and themes i was dealing with that, this kind of felt like a logical extension. >> right. >> so it was good timing, too. >> yeah. so how do you approach it when you go into a film like this knowing this is going to be an uphill battle to acquire materials, to get access to people and all that kind of stuff? >> well, you know, i approach this a little bit differently in the sense that i didn't set out to make a film about the church of scientology. i was interested in this idea of the prison of belief. >> right. >> and i was very interested in individuals who had gone through a journey like paul haggis had gone through. >> right. >> they got in, they got in deep, they did things they came to deeply regret, and then they found a way to get out. and i was interested in following that journey. so i focused on some of these people who had left the church. >> right.
>> and i did that very quietly. i didn't announce the project. >> yeah. >> because i didn't want a lot of harassment for the church. even as i was doing it, i was talking to people who were still members of the church, but i was doing it very quietly. and we had -- there was a certain amount of spy craft that we had to engage in to stay under the radar. >> yep. >> but that was the goal. and then when i felt i had gotten my key witnesses, then i went out to the church under various key people and said, i want to talk to you. please, you know, talk to me about these issues that have been raised. >> so you're making a film about the church and this notion of the prison of belief --. >> right. >> -- which is so fundamental to understanding, thematically, the movie. >> right. >> do you make a movie like this without the book as the basis? would you have come -- could you have come to this film without the book? was the book the enabler, in essence for this film? >> well, the book was the enabler. i mean, first of all larry was like, you know, if you're going to go through the line, you want a big blocking back like larry leading the way.
>> he's pretty good. >> yeah. >> right. >> and so the book was magnificent. and it was also due to an extraordinary amount of research as larry always does and great fact checking. and a tremendous, you know, so i was standing on pretty sturdy shoulders. >> right. and the article in "the new yorker" and then the book had been vetted and vetted and vetted. >> correct. >> and fact checked and lawyered. >> that's right. >> and so any of the difficulty at knowing whether we're going to have a problem reporting this or using this person and finding all these people. larry presumably helped you get connected. >> he did. there were a few people who -- there's one person in the film who wasn't in the book, but by and large larry was an enormous help to me. >> asset to you. >> yeah. >> and paul haggis, the director, the acclaimed director whose departure from the church -- public departure. semi-public, right, departure from the church. >> yeah. >> kind of was -- and it was the lead of larry's initial story in "the new yorker" and became a fundamental --. >> he called him his donkey.
>> right. and then became a fundamental part of the book and became a fundamental part. the movie begins with paul haggis. >> right. >> and comes close to ending with paul haggis. >> right. >> really, he was a huge aspect of this even happening to begin with, right? no paul haggis, maybe none of this is --. >> i think for larry, he was the way in. and, therefore, it helped me in too. because he was -- you know, i think there's a tendency to demonize scientology. >> yeah. >> we think those crazy people, they don't have anything to do with me, you know, so long as i stay away from those buildings i'll be okay. when paul haggis, you know, i don't think most people were aware that paul haggis was a scientologist. >> was a scientologist, right. >> and then when he said i've left the church, people were like, whoa, he was a scientologist? but i think people regarded him with a tremendous amount of respect. >> right. >> he was a very smart guy, hugely accomplished screenwriter and filmmaker. >> right. >> and so people were like, well, how did he get in? you naturally want to know. what was it about scientology that drew him in? and, in fact, that's what
fascinated larry and me also was not so much let's go after scientology. >> right. >> it was the idea of what interested really smart, discerning people about scientology in the first place? >> right. and of course paul haggis is not just any smart, discerning person, he is a celebrity. >> he's a celebrity. >> and, look --. >> well, and that's another -- you know, one of the things that l. ron hubbard, the founder of scientology recognized, is that the real bedrock religion of america is celebrity. that -- and so one of the reasons he headquartered scientology in l.a. was to have access --. >> access to that world. >> to that celebrity. >> but i think the fact of paul haggis, and then of course more famously, and we'll come to them in a moment, the fact of tom cruise and john travolta being scientologists has a kind of consumer-facing aspect to this story that draws probably more people in who might not otherwise be interested in this story. >> no doubt. >> right? and helps with the book and, frankly, helps with the film because when you see the film, if you have not seen the film, john travolta and tom cruise are
not the whole story, but there's a significant component where each is featured in there and their relationship to the church is discussed. >> yep. >> and it does really widen the aperture for a lot of people. >> there's no doubt. i mean, and actually if you ask anybody on the street, we could ask the members of the audience here, i mean, what do you know about scientology? oh, isn't that that tom cruise religion? >> tom cruise. they're going to know that, right. but let me ask you about religion generally before we come back to some of the specifics of this. so, you know, i'm not a terribly religious person. i try not to talk about religion -- you know, religion is one of these things where it's a tough dinner table conversation with some people. >> yeah, i hate your beliefs. >> right. is there not a part of this where, look, these people believe what they believe. who cares if from the outside it seems crazy? >> right. >> who cares if we're talking about the galactic overlord xenu? >> right. >> who cares if ron hubbard seems like a questionable figure in terms of his biography and things that he's asserted of the case? aren't these people just entitled to do what they want and be left alone? why is this religion, in that respect, worthy of scrutiny any more than -- i know you know an answer to this, but i want to ask it.
>> i'm thinking. >> than any other church? because the fact is they're saying there's bias against their belief system inherent in larry's book, inherent in your film. why are they not right? >> i don't have any problem with people believing what they want to believe. it's a stalking horse is what they use. you know, they try to portray anything that's critical of the church --. >> right. >> -- as being bigotry. but i don't have a problem with people believing whatever they want to believe. my issue is with the abuses committed in the name of that religion. >> right. >> and that's one of the things i made clear when i made my film on the catholic church. my issue was not with the faithful or the doctrine. >> right. you're not anti-catholic, per se. >> no. my issue was the abuses that were permitted in the name of that religion. >> right. >> it's like we do so much good, so what if, you know, a few priests rape children? >> if there's an underside, the good outweighs the bad. >> right. >> that's the theory. >> and there's -- the police have a term for this. it's called noble cause corruption. you know, it's the phrase they
use for cops who can't, you know, they know they're going after a bad guy but they can't get them --. >> yep. >> -- in the act of committing a crime, so they plant a joint on his pocket. and it's the same thing here. the end justifies the means. so in the, you know, the church of scientology has a doctrine called fair game. and that is if there's a critic of scientology, you can't be critical of scientology. if you are, you must be some kind of suppressive person, and therefore it is fair game to go after that person with everything you've got --. >> right. >> no holds barred. you can lie, you can cheat, you can steal, no matter what. so it's not the belief system that should be upsetting to people, it's the abuses --. >> it's the execution of the, you know, we are going to deal with people in this particular way. there are physical abuses alleged. >> yeah, it's the abuses inside the church, human rights abuses towards children. >> physical abuses, human rights abuses, towards children. and then, of course, there's the question of whether people are paying money that is ultimately going to enrich individuals in the church as opposed to money being given to the church that then is being used to do good
works, right? that's at the center of the irs question. >> right. and, of course, that and -- i mean, there are a lot of churches that do that. look at jimmy swaggart. >> right, right. >> but i think that, you know, more significant is why should our tax dollars go to support private eyes running around the country harassing people? you know, in the film marty rathbun, who was formerly number two --. >> number two at the church. >> -- in the church. you know, we have footage of, you know, five, six people showing up at his house with go pros on their forehead knocking on his door trying to -- and they -- and actually they rented a house right next to marty rathbun's house and had cameras --. >> this is after he left the church in '04. >> after he left the church. and he had become a critic. >> right. they then began to effectively harassing him for his apostasy and leaving the church. >> brutally. and harassing his wife, who had nothing to do with the church. >> right. >> you know, sending pornographic materials to her place of work, shadowing her when he was out of town. >> but this is all outside the walls of the church, which is one form of abuse, but what it's alleged in excruciating and difficult to watch detail, quite honestly inside the film, is
abuse inside the church. >> yep. >> inside the walls of the church. they've created a prison camp, it's alleged by former members, where people who are not towing the line completely are sent and the living conditions and everything -- i mean, it's just atrocious to consider that this is how -- forget the fact that they're a nonprofit. >> right. >> any organization, tax exempt, or not, would be treating people this way and getting away with it without consequence. >> right. now --. >> they insist that this didn't happen. >> of course they do. but there are a lot of witnesses who say it did happen and i'm convinced they're right. so, but the issue here -- and what is interesting about it is, this is where we get back to the prison of belief. >> yeah. >> i asked the question of a lot of these people in the film is that if the fbi were to show up at the door of the hole, which is where, you know, david miscavige, the head of the church, effectively imprisoned all the top-ranking people. if the fbi were to show up and say we're here, we're here to let you out, god, it's been awful for you to be in this prison, would any of you have
left? and all of them said to me, no. >> no. they would say, oh, everything's great. >> they said no, we're here for our own good. >> by choice. >> by choice. >> and we're here by choice. >> even though they were living in the most appalling conditions. there was a guy who was forced to clean the floor with his tongue. another person who was, you know, covered with cold water and put under an air conditioner. you know, sleep deprivation, forced to, you know, humiliate themselves in front of the group. >> right. >> it was kind of destabilizing. in a way it was mao's cultural revolution writ small. you know, he tried to sew chaos among, you know, the communist party in order to take control. >> right. >> and miscavige was trying to take control of the organization. >> now david miscavige became the chairman of the board, they call him, that's his title. >> c.o.b., right. >> he was the chairman of the board of the church. he succeeded l. ron hubbard. really the church has had only two people in charge for all these years. >> right. >> who, from your perspective, has been a greater influence over the church and the issues that you have with the church over the years?
was it hubbard or was it miscavige? did hubbard, essentially plant the seed that has now fully flowered, or did miscavige really take an organization that was kind of a little odd and weird to contemplate from the outside in a more problematic direction? >> i think it was baked in from the start with hubbard. the idea of fair game is a --. >> it's a hubbard concept. >> right. and i think, you know, the other thing that was a hubbard concept, and this is quite clear. and we have testimony from his second wife --. >> yeah. >> -- in the film where he started the religion as kind of a tax scam. >> yeah. >> you know, it was like if you're a religion, no one's going to tax you. wouldn't that be great? i don't have to give any of my money to the government. >> right. >> now i think by the end he had become a true believer, that's evident. but at the beginning, it was done very much as a kind of a tax scam. and the institution today is all still very much of a money machine. >> right, although it's less profitable, or the amount of
money, net worth of the church, the value of the church is down from where it was. >> i'm not sure. i think the value is actually -- it's a funny business model. the value is going up as the number of people decline. >> how is it possible? is it because of the real estate holdings becoming more valuable? >> well, let's just say once you have $3 billion in the bank, let's see you get 10%. that's $300 million a year. >> right, it's throwing off money. >> and, plus, you have, you know, the real estate holdings, which the church buys, most of which are empty, you know, at least in this country they're not paying property taxes on them. >> right. because it's tax exempt. >> yeah. >> right. so where the -- the number of people who are a part of the church, that number is actually down. and it continues to decline. >> the church is not on hard times then, financially. >> no. >> quite the opposite. >> now they're still trying to milk the remaining members. you know, one of the things that happens is you pay for various services that you get from their courses from the church. and you go up what's called the bridge to total freedom. >> right.
>> you know, a number of times along the way, you reach the top of the bridge to total freedom and the church says, oh wait a minute. there was a flaw in that bridge. we're reissuing the bridge, so you're going to have to go back through those courses again. >> right. >> meaning you're going to have to pay again. >> charge people again. >> right. i know people, you know, there is an accountant in the town i live in who advises clients who have given an appalling large percentage of their net income to the church, you know, through these courses and also through donations. because the other thing the church does is they solicit donations so that they can attack people like me and larry or, more significantly, ex-members. >> well, and let's say that if i were to search for alex gibney on google right now or search for lawrence wright on google, the very first thing that pops up is a sponsored ad, paid for by the church --. >> correct. >> -- attacking you all. basically a website that's been created. >> that sends you to a website on which there are a number of documentaries, one of which is an attack documentary on me, one on larry. and there's one for every one of the people i interviewed in the film. >> right.
come back to this question to the irs and tax exempt status, really there's an interesting pivot point in the narrative here. so the irs begins to come after the church of scientology and the exemption at a moment when it is said that the church is on the hook for something like four times the amount of money that the church --. >> a billion dollars. the tax bill was a billion dollars and they had, maybe, $200 million in assets. >> in assets. so for years and years, l. ron hubbard, as the film portrays him, was dodging the irs. so finally the chickens come home to roost on this. and if the i decides to take away t tax exetion andold the church twhat it owes, the church basically goes -- is done, right? >> right. somehow the church is able to negotiate an end to this, what they call a war, with the irs. and they keep their tax exempt status and essentially --. >> they get their tax exempt status. >> they get it. and then everything is basically fine. >> right. >> had that gone differently at that moment, we might not be sitting here now, right?
i mean, this is a different -- it's a different scenario. >> correct, correct. it was the survival of the church. it was an existential crisis. >> and this is in 19 --. >> 93ish. and so what the church did was they embarked on a kind of ruthless campaign of lawsuits, not only against the irs in every state in the country, but against individuals --. >> employees, right? >> yeah. and then in addition they, you know, were spying on people. i have friends who were in the justice department at the time who said, you know, they were constantly having to sweep their offices for bugs by the church of scientology. they were spying on individuals. they were digging up dirt on them and threatening to expose them. a huge amount of harassment all over the country. it's hard to imagine going after the irs. most of us don't think that's a really good idea. [laughter]. >> well, you know, interestingly have you met anybody in congress today? because it seems like, actually, that possibility is back on the table. >> yeah. >> let's go back after the irs. but, again, come back to this.
so they not only pivot away from this trouble with the irs, but the fund raising strategy, as the film explains, it also changes from one where you're paying for courses to just let's just have donations just to help us fight lawsuits to do this and that. really, the fund raising efforts of the church oddly ramp up at that point, right? where they go to people, just give us unrestricted gifts that are not because you're getting anything for it --. >> right. >> but just because you support the church. >> that's right. >> they turn this thing is a strength. >> well, yeah. because it's like, look at the people who attack us. >> right. >> and i think that's been a key, you know, in the attacks on me and larry and some of the people who talk in the film. you know, that is a key mechanism for the church in terms of turning the people who are inside into a, you know, a strong group. >> right. >> it's a kind of group dynamic. >> right. >> it's like there are enemies out there and we must protect ourselves against the enemies. >> right. >> and that way you don't pay that much attention to the abuse inside either. >> right. >> it's a pretty good strategy. >> we have a few more minutes. tell me about your thinking on
making documentaries generally. your process. how long does it take you to do a film like this? >> you know, this film took me over two years. >> right. >> i often work on more than one film at a time, in part, because sometimes a film gets stalled. >> right. >> your investigation stops. and i had been in the position in the past where, you know, you have to -- your money runs out so you have to stop and you have to finish no matter where you are. now i found that by doing more than one project it allows you the freedom to stop sometimes and then dig deeper when you need to. the film on lance armstrong i did took five years. >> right. well, of course, the story changed. >> the story did change big time. but that happens. >> it went in --. >> in a documentary that happens. >> that does happen. so it went in as more of a positive or a neutral. >> yeah. i was following lance armstrong during his comeback year. >> right. >> and then there's this small problem of the story becoming more dark. >> it did shift. >> it shifted. >> and, in fact, did you have a
name for that film originally? >> i think it was called "the road back" originally, and then it became "the armstrong lie." >> "the armstrong lie." amazing. why did you choose -- you went to ucla film school. you went to yale and then to ucla film school. >> right. >> why documentary as opposed to more, kind of, conventional hollywood feature film? >> i didn't start that way. i started, actually, as a fiction film editor. i was doing -- i started out cutting trailers for films like "invasion of the bee girls." [laughter]. >> really? >> yeah. and then, you know, i became a fiction film editor. but the trouble with being a fiction film editor is that if, unlike documentaries where films are made in the cutting room and you can shift at the last minute, if the director hasn't done their job on set and the script isn't good, you can't fix the picture --. >> there's only so much you can do. >> -- in the cutting room. and i was not getting good pictures. i was frustrated. so i dropped out of that stream and, you know, hung out a shingle. and those are some brutal years --. >> right.
>> -- waiting to, you know, get a documentary on board. but i finally, you know, geared up and i had done a number of tv documentaries and then finally i got a big break when i was -- i moved from l.a. back east. and i got a job producing this series of films that was executive produced by martin scorsese called "the blues." >> right. >> and feature film directors like marty, clint eastwood, mike figgis, wim wenders, antoine fuqua, you know, all doing their take on the blues. and it was really interesting to me auteur-driven directors handling nonfiction material in very personal ways. >> right. >> and that was like the ah-ha moment for me. it's like you can go after, you know, a documentary doesn't have to be some sort of dry powerpoint presentation. it's a movie. and it's a story. but it engages in real life nonfiction. >> yeah. >> and that, to me, was very exciting. >> made the difference for you. >> yeah. >> turned everything around. >> right. >> you have another film that's soon to come out about steve jobs. >> "steve jobs: the man in the
machine." >> it's doing festival stuff now, but it will be visible to the world when? >> well, we're just in the process now of finalizing a deal with the distributor, which we hope to announce soon. >> yeah. theatrical or tv? >> theatrical. >> good. >> and, so, we expect it will be released in the fall. >> in the fall. what's with your sinatra thing? i know you've been associated with a sinatra project for sometime. >> for over three years. >> speaking of things that don't always end in a timely fashion. [laughter]. >> so what's the status of that? >> the status is it's going to be on hbo on april 6th. >> so as we sit here april 6th, 2015. >> yeah, yeah. >> so by the time some people see this it may have already aired. >> correct. >> so it's a four-hour -- two-part, four-hour doc on sinatra. no on-camera interviews. it's driven by two things. one, all these wonderful audiotapes that we got access to from the family of sinatra himself talking about his life. >> so the family is, in essence, cooperating.
>> they have cooperated. and then the structure of the film is based on his retirement concert. he didn't actually retire, but in 1971, he said that's it for me, i'm retiring. and he gave a final concert. so it's sort of like 11 songs to tell the story of a life. and each one of those songs becomes a chapter in telling the story of sinatra's life. >> how cool. >> yes, cool. >> your dad was a great journalist, frank gibney, news magazine guy, kind of, you know, old school journalism. he influenced your thinking about how to put these kinds of stories -- i was thinking, you know, what might have been an influence for you and i kind of come to your dad's life --. >> well, he was a huge influence for me, though he was, i think, disappointed that i didn't go into the family business, into the print. >> right. >> and he didn't really understand --. >> you have a brother in journalism. >> i do. i have two brothers in journalism. he didn't really understand the movie thing. but nevertheless, he had a sense of curiosity about the world. >> right. >> and also his notorious penchant for -- you know, it's
told that if you want to prosper, you suck up and kick down. he was good at sucking down and kicking up, which was not a very good career path strategy. >> that would be a good name for a documentary. "sucking down and kicking up: the frank gibney story." >> right, that's right. >> you know what, if he were with us and he saw what you did with scientology, he would say that's journalism, and he would be really proud. i think it's a great film. congratulations on that. >> thank you very much, delighted. >> good to see you. alex gibney. thank you very much. [applause]. >> we'd love to have you join us in the studio. visit our website at klru.org/overheard to find invitations to interviews, q&as with our audience and guests, and an archive of past episodes. >> i think the people i'm really concerned for are the people film, because they have received much more abuse than i have. and i know a number of them are being followed daily by private eyes. you know, they're receiving threats against their physical persons.
they're, you know, being told that their houses are going to be taken away, so forth and so on. they're being harassed on a rather extreme level. funding for "overhead" with evan smith is provided in part by m.f.i. foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. and from the texas board of legal specialization, board certified attorneys in your community. experienced, respected, and tested. also by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy and its global health care consulting business unit hillco health. and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation. and viewers like you. thank you.